Notes on Bernstein

Assuming there aren’t any newsworthy stories demanding a blog post and taking priority – like say a cabinet reshuffle, a shock announcement snap Brexit referendum announcement, or the BBC offering me a presenting gig on Radio 3 – then Tuesdays on this blog will be given over to a regular series of notes on Bernstein.

I don’t know much about Bernstein. At least I don’t think I know enough about Bernstein.

Why publish notes?

That’s the thing about the classical music world I notice. Friends of mine who have their noses to the classical music grindstone question whether they know enough about the subject they assume they should be expert in. Newcomers to the concert hall assume they need to know more before they start to listen. And increasingly, I relish the opportunity to spend a bit more time researching.

Part of my coaching training informs these posts too. When reading various articles, studies, techniques and manuals, one question always seemed to be asked in tutorials: what resonates with you?

By capturing the insights that resonate and documenting them, so further questions and ideas arise.

So, to use a regular blog post to capture ongoing insights about a composer I feel I don’t know as much as I’d like to, other people get to benefit, and I get to develop ideas for future posts.

It’s the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth this year. It’s a big deal. It’s also a great opportunity for those who have a vested interest in the composer and conductor’s estate. His music is known widely (even if people don’t realise it’s Leonard Bernstein’s) and like that of Benjamin Britten, played an important part in my formative musical experiences.

But unlike Britten, I don’t feel like I especially understand him, or have a deep sense of him as a man, or an appreciation of him as an artist.

Joan Peyser Leonard Bernstein (1987)

I’ve started with Joan Peyser’s landmark book about Leonard Bernstein from 1987. The year I’d started my GCSE music at school.

The pictures included in this biography show a young man with thick heavy eyebrows and a boyish complexion. There’s focus and drive in his eyes that is magnetic. But there’s also a sense of danger. An electrifying self-assurance. Vulnerability on a knife-edge.

Two striking things arise from the first 63 pages of Joan Peyser’s book.

First that Leonard Bernstein didn’t feel the weight of expectation to pay due deference to the European tradition of classical music composers. That appreciation of the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven, or J.S Bach came later in his education. I’m interested in discover how that set him apart from perceived notions of tradition or convention at the time, and to what extent that helped or hindered him later in his career.

The dichotomy between art and pop in the United States

That point crystallised for me when Joan Peyser included an excerpt from a letter sent by the then Dean of Music at California Institute of the Arts, composer Mel Powell, reflecting on

“What is ‘serious’ about serious music (‘classical’ in the pop parlance) is essentially European … what I do, what others in our field do, is , in this sense not distinguishable from what our European colleagues do. Of course there are idiosyncratic accents, ‘dialects,’ so to speak … but generically the underpinnings of a formal ‘high’ musical art belong to the European heritage.

I believe that a socio-psycho-cultural taxonomist can make out a good case for the presence of a special nostalgia, encoded in the genes of many Americans, that secretly longs for the ‘forbidden’ (that is aristocratic) palaces and chapels of Europe’s past. And this links to a familiar American self-perception as the ‘outsider’ … which in turn can generate an American view of quintessentially ‘American’ items – the pop idiom, jazz, etc – as inescapably vulgar.”

Joan Peyser argues that Leonard Bernstein didn’t suffer from the distinction made between the two musical styles because his ‘family tie to European culture was so fragile’.


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